Saturday, 17 Apr 2021

Colorado could join 12 other states in allowing child sex abuse survivors to sue abusers indefinitely if new bill passes

For decades, survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their advocates have urged states to let them hold abusers accountable in civil court, no matter how long it’s been since the abuse. A bipartisan bill in the Colorado Legislature to do just that so far appears to have widespread approval, but it’s not without opposition from the Colorado Catholic Conference — a church embroiled in a sex abuse scandal in Colorado, the U.S. and around the world.

There is no expiration date in Colorado to bring criminal charges against a person accused of child sex abuse, but the statute of limitations to sue an individual is only six years after a victim turns 18. Last year’s effort to change the latter failed.

The renewed push to eliminate the statute of limitations for lawsuits against alleged child sex abusers saw an unanimous Senate vote this week — a vote Wheat Ridge Democratic Sen. Jessie Danielson called “historic.” But the bipartisan bill, which now heads to a House committee, doesn’t apply to civil claims that will have already expired by the time it takes effect, which was a sticking point over constitutionality concerns last year.

That’s why lawmakers have introduced a second (also bipartisan) bill to create a new cause of action to allow people abused as children to sue public and private institutions like churches, schools and the Boy Scouts for past abuse that occurred under their watch. Both the Colorado Catholic Conference and the Boy Scouts, which is also facing abuse allegations in the state, are opposed.

Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta is one of the sponsors on both bills, partly because one statistic about childhood sexual abuse sticks with him: Victims often don’t disclose the abuse until their 50s.

“And usually, it’s not a one-off instance. It’s usually over and over again by a family member, a close family friend, someone who’s in a position of trust like a teacher or a priest or a club leader, or a trainer,” Soper said. “And it takes years and years for that individual to be able just to share their story.”

That was James “Jeb” Barrett’s experience. The child sexual abuse survivor and leader of the Denver Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (or SNAP) chapter grew up in Montana, and said he was sexually abused as a child by multiple adults he trusted — a teacher, an uncle, a priest and Scout leader. His partner, who had also been abused as a child, died by suicide.

It took him until he was 63 to talk about his abuse, he said. He’s now 81, and understands firsthand the effects of childhood trauma, including dealing with addiction.

Other times, the adults in a child’s life don’t believe them, furthering that trauma. On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Brittany Pettersen shared the story of her own mother, who was sexually abused for years by Pettersen’s grandfather at a young age. Pettersen’s mom eventually told her mother, who didn’t believe her daughter.

“This bill is about slightly giving back to ensure (adults abused as children) actually feel for the first time in their life they have the justice they’ve been seeking, the acknowledgement they’ve been seeking for their entire life,” the Lakewood Democrat said.

After years of advocating for policies like the two in front of lawmakers, Barrett said he’s hopeful this time.

“It’s incrementally moving toward the openness, accountability and transparency that we need across the board,” and “justice,” he said.

Support and constitutionality concerns

At least one of the new bills has the support of the Victim Policy Institute, which lobbied heavily against it last year. And, as expected, survivors who’ve advocated for legislation in prior years are back this year, “so their story shapes public policy, so what happened to them doesn’t happen to any other child victim in the future,” said Raana Simmons, director of policy for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

If Colorado approves an elimination of the statute of limitations for civil claims, it will join 12 other states and the U.S. territory of Guam, according to Philadelphia-based Child USAdvocacy.

Kathryn Robb, executive director of the agency and a survivor herself, testifies in statehouses across the country. She said the country is starting to understand how long it takes to disclose abuse and the effects of this trauma on children’s brains and behavior.

“This is happening all over the country right now … because as a society, we are recognizing the enormous problem we have with child sexual abuse,” she said.

A prime example of the widespread nature of child sex abuse is the allegations against Catholic priests. A recent Colorado investigation revealed accusations against dozens of priests for allegedly sexually abusing at least 212 children over the past 70 years, and the church paid nearly $7 million to victims.

The Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s three dioceses — Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — said it has supported unlimited time to seek criminal charges but not, as proposed in the bill, for civil statutes.

In a statement, the group said it supports “reasonable and fair extension of the civil statute of limitations; however, statutes of limitations must have a sensible time limit to ensure due process for all parties involved.”

The Boy Scouts of America also has been dealing with allegations of childhood sexual abuse across the country, with at least 16 Colorado men joining nearly 800 who signed onto a lawsuit in 2019, saying it happened to them when they were scouts. (A Boy Scouts internal investigation found abuse stretching from the 1940s to 2016.)

The Denver Area Council of Boy Scouts of America supports the bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil claims, Scout Executive and CEO Chuck Brasfeild wrote in a statement. But the group is concerned about the other bill — creating a new cause of action against an organization that either knew or should have known about the risks and concealed abuse — which, Brasfeild said, appears to be an unconstitutional overreach.

The Colorado Catholic Conference also opposes that measure, saying: “Passing a bill with constitutional and due process problems does not put victims first. It will only delay opportunities for survivors to receive compensation and not promote true restorative justice. The Catholic Church in Colorado is eager to ensure survivors of abuse receive the support they need for true healing.”

But the bill sponsors say that’s the reason they created the measure — expected to have its first Senate committee hearing next week — so victims can sue abusers and the organizations that protected them regardless of when the abuse happened instead of using what’s referred to as a “lookback window” to revive old claims.

Legislative lawyers said a “lookback window” violates the state’s constitution, according to bill sponsors Commerce City Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Soper.

“We really wanted to respect our state’s constitution,” Soper said. “Otherwise, why are we here?”

Ted Trimpa, a Colorado lobbyist for the Victim Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C., had argued against the bill last year, saying it didn’t go far enough without the “lookback window.” He believed Colorado lawmakers should have taken the issue to court because other states have successfully won such challenges.

This year, his organization is reviewing whether it will support the civil cause of action bill and is supporting the statute of limitations bill, Trimpa said.

Danielsen said she is urging lawmakers to “think about the adults who endured this kind of abuse in their past because it was traumatic and caused lifelong damage and pain and suffering” — people who have had to seek treatment for years. It will shift the cost from the victims to the abusers as well as prevent young kids from having to face abusers in criminal court. Instead, parents can pursue civil action.

Approving this bill, she added, gives lawmakers the opportunity to “stand on the side of survivors and protect those who can’t protect themselves.”

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